“It’s as if you’re making a body oil.” Jonnine Standish sits to my right, perched on a small couch in her bandmate Nigel Yang’s apartment, trying to explain the process behind the music they make as HTRK. Yang’s apartment is cozy and dimly lit; strewn with children’s toys and books. Minimal, mid-tempo house music is playing on the stereo. Standish, Yang and I have been talking for the better part of an hour, and after discussion of everything else key to understanding HTRK in 2019, Standish gets down to the brass tacks.
“It’s got these drops of humour, drops of sadness, drops of sex,” she explains. “It’s different amounts of drops to make a HTRK song. It’s not that we’re making the music that we want to hear — it’s that we know when we’re making a HTRK song.”
The pair have been in a band for so long it feels like there’s a kind of intuition between them. Yang will have to speak for Standish and Standish for Yang. Dressed in simple colours and fabrics, they have a mature, peaceful air about them; often coded as ‘mysterious’ figures in the Melbourne scene. In person, they strike more as a pair uninterested in cultivating any air of grandeur about them.
First emerging in Melbourne in the early ’00s, HTRK (pronounced ‘Hate Rock’) established themselves as strange, scowling renegades swimming against Melbourne’s tide of uncaring, larrikin pub rock bands. Initially a collaboration between Yang and Sean Stewart, the pair invited Standish to join the band early on.
With a distinctive sound that stood out in the Melbourne scene, the trio achieved underground success quickly. In 2009 they released their debut full-length Marry Me Tonight, which was produced by former Birthday Party member collaborator Rowland S. Howard – a highly respected figurehead in Australia’s alternative music scene. After relocating to Berlin to record their sophomore record, the band was shaken by Howard’s death that same year.
The following year, Sean Stewart committed suicide halfway through recording the album. Yang and Standish finished and released the lo-fi and grief-stricken Work, (Work, Work) in 2011, and the tormented-but-optimistic album Psychic 9-to-5 Club in 2014. “Psychic 9-to-5 Club, timing wise, was before we actually came to peace with ourselves,” Yang explains, referring to the three years after Stewart’s passing. “It was kind of a stressful time.”
Venus In Leo, the band’s fourth full-length – released 30 August via Ghostly – represents an exhale, after an album recorded with bated breath. For perhaps the first time since their debut, HTRK feel free.
Venus In Leo was recorded live, in only a few takes. “We really tried not to fuss too much over everything like the last album,” Standish explains, “[This time] if the authentic story came across, we were good.” Standish’s lyrics tend to be front-and-centre of the songs, crafting narratives about romance, family and selfhood that stand in contrast to the hyper-internal mantras of their last album. “Psychic 9-to-5 Club was a real personal quest to rewire my brain,” she says. “This is more inspired by narrative, by the different people that you run into in your life randomly, and the incredible effect they can have.”
The universes Standish creates on Venus are beautifully rendered. Mentions brings a prickle to the skin as she describes the strange physical rush of having your makeup done at a mall cosmetics counter, while Dream Symbol draws a surreal scene inspired by the recurring dreams Standish has of her childhood home, the same building pictured on Venus’s cover. The album ends with New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve, songs about Standish’s fraught relationship with the Christmas and New Years’ period, which, in Australia, can be strange and surreal due to the extreme heat. These songs are funny and intimate, and devastatingly romantic, but they don’t feel like love songs. Instead, they indulge in the thrill and romance of finding excitement amongst mundanity.
Yang’s arrangements are airy and led by unadorned guitar — a result of him moving back to Melbourne after a period of living in Sydney. “I was getting into Melbourne-sounding indie music again [like] The Ocean Party,” Yang explains. After periods in London and Berlin for the band, where being cutting-edge is king, Yang found that Melbourne allowed a certain aesthetic flexibility. “Here, the pressure isn’t there to be sonically innovative, and you can be more emotionally authentic without that pressure to be cool.”
That lack of pressure led to songs that HTRK might never have made before now. New Year’s Eve, on the other hand, is an elegiac ballad that’s almost, shockingly, traditional. “Could I kiss you at midnight, and we could hang out sometime?” The pair see it as a daggy pop song, almost “a Justin Bieber song,” as Standish jokes. But it feels, unequivocally, like a HTRK song — delicate in its composition, pummelling in its emotionality and candour. Yang and Standish still know instinctively what a HTRK song is; it’s just that this time around, the formulation — how many drops of sex, sadness, and humour you need — has changed.